Sunday, March 31, 2013


The Alchemist

Over coffee on a quiet Easter sunday morning in the hostel, I chatted with an alchemist.  An old Italian named Fabian, he had a face that looked immediately familiar, as if he was someone I knew in either this life or a previous one.  He had a salt-and-pepper white beard, and long hair tied up in a small rubberband behind his head.  His eyes were luminous and eternal.

He explained to me that alchemy was not merely the transformation of worthless metals into gold, but rather the transmutation of all things- the transfer of all energy, of qi.  He spoke of his quest to unlock the alchemist's riddle, and find immortality. Not immortality of the body, as that is transient and worthless like base metals the alchemist uses, but the immortality of the soul.  The ability to remember the lessons learned from life to life, so that we are liberated from the constant efforts at re-learning all that we had once known.

Perhaps the Hindu sages would term this moksha- liberation.

He spoke of The Red Lion, which I must find.

We ate matza that a Canadian woman offered.  This was the first piece I had this Passover week, and it came to me from a Christian woman.  On an Easter sunday. I laughed at this irony.

I spoke of Borges, whom he did not know.  Of panta rhei- the notion of that everything flows.  I spoke of alephs at the intersection of infinity and eternity.  I spoke of Maurits Cornelis Escher' work in vertigo and mobius curves.

We agreed that nothing in this world happens by chance- that we are bound by an inexplicable thread that ties all of our destinies together.  I left, my head swimming in thought.  To complete the thought from yesterday: the words of the prophets are written on the Hawthorne walls. And hostel halls.  And whispered in the sounds of silence.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Words of the Prophets are written on the Hawthorne Walls

The Words of the Prophets are written on the Hawthorne Walls:

Men reject their prophets and slay them, 
but they love their martyrs
and honor those whom they have slain.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky

The beauty of the world has two edges,
one of laughter
and one of anguish
cutting the heart asunder.
-Virginia Woolf

The silence drew off
Baring the pebbles and shells
and all the tatty wreckage of my life...
then it gathered itself,
and in one sweeping tide
rushed me off to sleep.
-Sylvia Plath

We are all in the gutter,
but some of us
are looking at the stars.
-Oscar Wilde

Whither Weather?

Every day in Portlandia has been sunny and fair with nary a drop of rain.  I don't know what the Portlandians are complaining about.  Babies.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


At Los Gorditos with veggie chile rellenos with soyrizo and a Mexican coke to wash it down. Portlandia, we may be amigos.

Soy Cowboy

Oh, Portlandia: a vegetarian girl named Pegasus told me of a vegan strip club in Portland. Apparently, strip clubs are the thing in the PO. I may have to get my tofu on. Seitan trying to tempt this kosher vegetarian...

The Pharaoh's revenge

Egyptian Koshary found for lunch in Portlandia! Irony that Egyptian food was the only thing I could find to eat on Passover.

The 1 percent of Baseball

Baseball is truly emblematic as the American pastime: ailing A-Rod will make more than the ENTIRE Houston Astros team.

Gay marriage and the Bible

I don't plan to weigh in too much on gay marriage beyond the fact that the Bible might not be the best source to quote on marriage being between one man and one woman.  For centuries, polygamy was permissible, and God didn't see fit to smite the polygamists such as Abraham (and Belshazzar and Shaharaim).  It took a while for the present conception of marriage to "evolve" even in scriptural terms  All I am saying is that the Bible might not be the best source when it comes to defining marriage.

Cultural Diplomacy Idol; En route on the Oregon Trail

It has been a crazy but wonderful week.  I have been running auditions for the next class of American Music Abroad ensembles.  American Idol meets cultural diplomacy.  We went coast-to-coast auditioning approximately 40 bands that were whittled down from the 320 ensembles that applied.  New York to St. Louis to San Francisco.  And some absolutely immaculate music along the way.  We had a major hiccup in St. Louis on account of a late winter storm that struck in March.  We had an AMA first of skype auditions due to cancelled flights.   After a long week, we finished the auditions and the judges descended into the conclave.  A puff of white smoke will be seen on April 12th.

We finished the audition work, and I headed out to Portlandia to take advantage of my virtual office for a few days and check out the Oregon Trail.   Except I had a little hiccup at the Oakland Airport.  I had a flight to Portland at 7:40pm.  I sat at the gate waiting to depart, and hopped into line to get on the flight.  Only to have my ticket give an incorrect ding.  Turns out that I wasn't on the direct flight to Portland, I was supposed to be on a flight that was routed by way of Reno on to Portland that was leaving at the exact same time- some 4 gates down.

I ran to customer service to see if I could switch flights.  The ticket agent was able to change me, but my bag would still be on the same flight.  Didn't seem worth it, since I would have to wait at the airport or come back for it, so I decided to keep my travel plans.  Except she jumped the gun and switched me.

So then I had to run over to the Reno counter to get them to switch me back to their flight.  But then the counter lady convinced me that I was better off taking the direct flight and hanging out at the airport bar (which I am doing now) than sitting on a plane.  Sold.  So she changed my ticket back to the direct Portland flight.  I ran back to the gate and got on the direct flight to the PO.

My flight was short and fun.  I snagged a middle seat in the emergency exit row so I had a little extra leg room.  I sat next to a fellow named Jason, who was from Portlandia and was stoked that it was my first time in his fair city.  He gave me a ton of recs.  I played my favorite travel game: sweet-talk the stewardesses into giving me free drinks.  I told them I deserved a free drink for a myriad of reasons, and gave them their choice of stories of why I deserved a free G&T.  Work Story or Travel Story?  Work Story was about my oh-so-long work week on behalf of Uncle Sam's next class of musical ambassadors; Travel Story was about my luggage woes.  They laughed and give me a G&T; I kept running my mouth, and got them to throw in a free drink for the fellow sitting next to me who gave me good recs.

So now I am waiting in the quiet, empty airport bar, waiting for my luggage to meet me.  Welcome to Portlandia!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Death and taxes

About a week or so back, I was informed that my tax accountant had gone mia.  This had been the last bastion of parental financial support- they let me be a remora in their tax slipstream.  But I was informed that they were getting a new accountant, and I was on my own.

So I went down to Staples and bought a copy of TurboTax.  It sat in its box through a busy week, until the following sunday when I finally had a chance to install it.  I opened the security seal and opened the box, only to find it empty!  And I had long since tossed the receipt.

I quickly drove back over to Staples.  I walked up to the clerk, and told him that I had purchased the box a week prior, and it was empty.  I explained that I had no receipt, given the time that had passed.  Then I looked him dead in the eye and said: "they say there are two certainties in life, death and taxes; my word could be added to that list, I promise that my story is true."

He smiled, and reached under the counter to give me a new package.  This time I checked the contents to make sure the TurboTax cd was inside.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Baltimore Detour; The Acela Debacle

I had planned to spend my Sunday in DC but all the afternoon buses were sold out, and I had to get a 1pm bus back.  Not wanting to return to DC so soon, I decided to hop of the bus in Charm City.  Immediately I felt I had made the right decision.  I ventured out of the station and looked for a bus into town.  With none around, I hoped a cab.  The Pakistani cab driver wanted $6 off the meter, but I bargained down in Urdu to $5.  He laughed, and I played him some Yusuf al-Islam.

I wandered through Federal Hill, stopping at a bar called The Metropolitan for an afternoon drink.  I never left.  At the bar, I met a fellow named Jefferson, who had studied military history at Norwich.  We spent the afternoon geeking out about history, and were joined by a pilot who flew cargo into Africa (welcome to Ouagadougou!) and otherwise.  He showed me a pic on his phone that I immediately recognized as Bishkek.  Perhaps not another person in a bar in Baltimore could make that claim. 

The afternoon turned into a long St. Patty’s Day nite with Baby Guinesses.  A twentysomething fellow wanted to introduce me to the Yemenite musician who ran the tobacco shop across the street, so we chatted up the fellow over his oud and I gave advice on how he could share Yemeni music in Baltimore.  

I had planned to stay at the hostel on Mulberry, as I really like the place, but the twentysomething kid insisted I come crash on his couch.  So I followed him to his apartment.  He had a bunch of other friends there, and the other kiddies were not so keen on a random stranger on their couch.  Some obnoxious girl asked me in an accusatory tone: “Who are you?”  I laughed and said “Who are you?”

So I left and went over the hostel as I originally planned.  I promptly fell asleep, and snored like a bear for all the poor hostelmates chagrin.

The next morning, I got up and moving and had the pancake breakfast included.  I made my way to Pennsylvania Station and ran to buy a ticket for the MARC (commuter) train leaving at 9:06.  It was 9:05, and the sign said the train was still boarding.  But I couldn’t find the train.  I thought it had already left, but they kept making announcements that the train was still boarding.  At 9:09, a train pulled in.  I asked the conductor if it was heading to DC, he said yes- it was 2107.  So I hopped on.  Probably should have known better, it was an Acela. 

No sooner did the conductor come by, he looked at my MARC ticket and was convinced I was pulling a scam.  I offered to buy the regular ticket; he wanted me to speak with the Amtrak policeman on board.  So we walked over to the policeman.  I explained about how I was running around looking for the train, and I asked.  The conductor claimed he had said it was an Acela train, but I don’t believe he did.  I didn’t win that argument.  Anyway, I agreed to buy a ticket—until I heard the price. $68 for a 35-minute train ride.  I was apoplectic.  Can I just get off at the next stop?  There wasn’t.  Can I jump off the train? 

I didn’t need to rush back, and I definitely did not want a $68 train ride on a POS Acela.  But I had no choice, and no other options.  So I handed over my credit card to the conductor to pay for the ticket.  But POS Amtrak, the conductor couldn’t work the credit card to buy a ticket.  So I then had to have a police escort when we arrived to Union Station to go to the Amtrak ticket counter to buy the ticket.  I gave my "For the Record" statement to the police escort; they laughed, and said "So, for the record, you were wrong." Guilty as charged.  

En route, I laughed, and told the police officers that this was my first police escort, but spun tales of my peshmerga escorts in K-stan.  The police escort was kind-of a trip, but the guys were genial once they realized I wasn’t a train hopper or grifter (A Grifter for Good? Something Ellen and I were joking about).

So in the end, I had to pay a $68 stupidity tax to f’ing Amtrak.  Amtrak, you suck.  There is no good reason that trip from Baltimore to DC should be $68.  And there was no good reason that I should get the Nth degree over a misunderstanding.  Dagney Taggert should take you over and sell you for scrap.

Iron Chef meets Culinary Diplomacy

Late last week, I got a tweet from my friend and fellow gastrodiplomat Sam about the Embassy Chef Challenge.  With a lil luck, I managed to acquire a ticket— normally $250 but free for this media maven.

At the Reagan Building downtown, I arrived for this culinary diplomacy fest.  I would say culinary diplomacy over gastrodiplomacy because $250 a ticket is more high-brow than my gastrodiplomatic tendencies, but remarkable nonetheless. 

There was representation from a number of Embassies’ executive chefs, including China, Norway, South Korea, El Salvador, Jamaica, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago.  I was most excited to try the food from TnT. 

The event did not disappoint.  Given my veggie caveat of trying cultural foods, I quickly hopped off the veggie wagon.  The first station I tried was Norway, which had a delicious potato-leek soup with chunks of light flaky fish.  They had samples of Aquvit- the water of life- to cleanse the palate.

South Africa was a fav, with delicious bites of boerwoers (South African beef sausage) and tastes of biltong- South African dried meat that I dare not classify as jerky because that would be an insult to the far superior biltong.  They had wonderful South African cape wines to accompany.  I wish there was some amarula (Elephant Juice!) for dessert, but I can’t hold that against them.

Russia had a duck pie that was fair, but the Standard vodka was a nice touch. 

New Zealand was featuring its favorite lamb chops, and they were tender and tasty.

Jamaica had jerk kabobs, which were good but I will take the low-brow version on the Kingston streets.  But I realize that spice isn’t for everyone.

El Salvador had a delicious ceviche and the chef gave me a little shot of sangre de la tigre (“Blood of the Tiger”), the distilled juice of the ceviche whose tart tang was phenomenal.  El Salv also did the most outreach about the event, with lots of tweets to highlight their fare. 

Trinidad and Tobago was a delicious curry soup with a little fried piece of fish on the spoon.  Dynamite (ok, that was too easy).  Sam and I chatted with the chef (“Chef Tiger”) who spoke of the diverse elements that underscore TnT’s cuisine, drawn from its diverse population of Africans, Indians and Caribe heritage.  TnT also had a carnival queen to take pictures with guests; good cultural diplomacy is employing your best cultural assets.

I had the most fun with China.  The chef was making plates of his fare with chopsticks.  He was doling out shrimp, so I said in Mandarin that I don’t eat shrimp.  He laughed, and piled my plate with other food.  He pointed to the fork, so I asked him in Mandarin if he had chopsticks.  He laughed, and gave me the ornamental pair that was on display.  A lovely souvenir indeed.

And then there was the Korean table.  Korea was serving donggun legend rolls.  It was a roll of beef wrapped in kimchi, and it was fantastic.  They had a white rice wine to sample, and it went perfectly with the dish.  In the opinion of this gastrodiplomacy judge, Korea won the Embassy Chef Challenge.

On the whole, the event was a lot of fun.  I really liked the efforts of TnT and El Salvador to use culinary diplomacy to help educate on their culture.  I continue to be impressed by Korea’s culinary diplomacy outreach.  While the event was far more culinary diplomacy than gastrodiplomacy, it was a great bit of culinary diplomacy fun and nice to see Embassies getting involved in a creative way of showcasing their cuisine for public diplomacy purposes.

PS: Apparently the chef from the New Zealand Embassy won.  That came as a shock to me; I thought the NZ fare was good if unremarkable.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reporting from Dellamanistan

In addition to playing festivals and clubs throughout the United States, Della Mae recently expanded the scale of its touring efforts after participating in the U.S. State Department's American Music Abroad program. Selected as cultural ambassadors, the band spent 43 days traveling in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where they collaborated with local musicians, taught educational programs for children, and played concerts for local audiences.
"It's been a life-changing experience for us, individually and as a band," Ludiker says of the tour. "A cool thing about playing music in Central Asian countries is in the lack of distinction their audience places between musical genres. We found that if music is played with feeling, all people connected to it. They find themselves smiling and relating without even understanding the language."

Indeed, Della Mae demonstrates how effectively music builds bridges and transcends artificially constructed borders, whether they're national or genre-based.

And one more report from Dellamanistan: while in Pakistan, Della Mae played for the Lettuce Bee Kids, an ngo that works with Afghan refugee and Pakistani street kids to give them some opportunities for fun and education. These are the pics that the kiddies drew from their day with the Dellas.

"Republicans draw up a plan to broaden appeal"

"Republicans draw up a plan to broaden appeal"

I have some simple advice for the Grand Old Party: don't alienate every brown person and other minority by acting like f'ing douchebags, and perhaps you can broaden your appeal.


Che Pablo has letter to the editor in the Washington Post today, where I stick it to the Man for US support of the Argentine junta during the Dirty War:

While it is important to scrutinize Pope Francis’s clerical life during Argentina’s “Dirty War” [front page, March 16], it remains equally important to examine the United States’ role in supporting the brutal Argentine junta. 
If skeletons are being brought into the light, then the extent of U.S. support for the junta through economic and military assistance, silence at human rights violations by a Cold War ally and the turning of a blind eye to “the disappeared” during years of repression is a similarly relevant subject — one that should be addressed and helps provide broader context to the discussion of the era.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


An update from Matuto- an American Music Abroad ensemble on tour in Africa:

"just played our first show in Abidjan. Nothing in this world quite like 800 Côte D'Ivoirians chanting MA TU TO, MA TU TO, MA TU TO, before spilling into the streets singing the Matuto Chant. J'aime l'Afrique!!!"

How Cultural Diplomacy is done...

The Levantine Rockowers

Of the Levant, they say:

With the Greeks, they are always right; with the Turks, you are always wrong; with the Israelis, you don't what you are talking about.

Ellen is a Greek; I am a Turk; Harry is the Israeli of the Rockower clan.

Ellen looked like a Greek, wrapped in a green and white tapestried scarf wrapped around her head and leaving just whisps of black her and her sea blue eyes out.

I am a Turk, or get confused as such.  Or perhaps a Mountain Turk, as the Kurds thought.

Harry knows where he is, even if he has never been there.

We communicate differently, but all are of the same Rockower geography.

Visible Cities

Visible Cities 
-the immutable Italo Calvino in this month's Harper's Magazine.

Dear Mr. Ricci,
  Here is my CV.  I was born in 1923 under a sky in which in the radiant sun and melancholy Saturn were housed in a harmonious Libra.  I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in what was in those days still verdant San Remo, which contained cosmopolitan eccentrics amid the surly isolation of its rural, practical folk; I was marked for life by both these aspects of the place.  Then I moved to the industrious and rational Turin, where risk of going mad is no less than elsewhere (as Nietzche found out).  I arrived at a time when the streets opened out deserted and endless, so few were the cars; to shorten my journeys on foot I would cross the rectilinear streets on long obliques from one angle to the other—a procedure that today is not just impossible but unthinkable—and in this way I would advance marking out invisible hypotenuses between gray right-angled sides.  I got to know only barely other famous metropolises, on the Atlantic and Pacific, falling in love with all of them at first sight: I deluded myself into believing that I had understood and possessed some of them, while others remained forever ungraspable and foreign to me.   For many years I suffered geographic neurosis: I was unable to stay three consecutive days in one city or place.  In the end I chose definitive wife and dwelling in Paris, a city that is surrounded by forests and hornbeams and birches, where I walk with my daughter Abigail, and that in turn surrounds the Bibliotheque Nationale, where I go to consult rare books, using my Reader’s Ticket, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old.  That’s all.

                                                                                                Yours sincerely,

>While I dream of a Paris sabbatical with the sublime sounds of French rock, the incomparable Noir Desir (“L’Europe”) singing sultry sounds in my ear.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Bells of Philadelphia

I made my way to the top of the building, up the fire escape.  In new places, I like to explore my way to the highest point.  What I found was beautiful.

Up the fire escape to the deck of someone's presently departed apartment.  I stood on the metal fire escape, sipping hot honey ginger crystals.  The mug kept my cold hands warm.

A greyed Philadelphia skyline. With the jagged skyscraper as a beacon of light.  Like a lighted buoy in the sea grey sky.  Like a phosphorescent torch in a grey sea. Burn like a beacon, and then we'll be gone.

A view of Philadelphia I have never seen before.

From Independence Hall, a bell rang out across the fog.  One, slowly by another.  Slowly by another.  Seven bells for the seventh hour.  Filling the evening's silence with a

A line of neon ran across the Avenue of the Arts.

After the peals died down, I slowly made my back down the fire escape.  I had no business being there.

I returned back up the fire escape the following morning to see the view in its full regalia.  A clear panorama of Philadelphia.  Gloria Philadelphia.  As a siren streaked across the silent sky.


Helping Ellen move in to Philly. She is far handier than me. She is a metal smith, and I am a word smith. We work with different materials.

She comes by it naturally. We had a great-great-grandfather was a tin smith. She was named for his daughter.

(I'm sure Abba will chime in with my incorrect geneology)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Danger

"It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013



Wearing only a codpiece and a sombrero.

The best pork chops in Jerusalem.

And other googlenopes.

A classic.

Pope Che I

I love it.  It is still an Italian Pope, just one generation removed to Argentina- an Italian outpost in South America.

The bigger deal to me is that he is the first Jesuit pope.

And in other news: Brazil converts en mass to Protestantism.

PS and FTW: ‏@kirstinbenson We found smoke in a popeless place... #overheard cc: @rihanna



18 obsolete words, which never should have gone out of style

Just like facts and flies, English words have life-spans. Some are thousands of years old, from before English officially existed, others change, or are replaced or get ditched entirely.
Here are 18 uncommon or obsolete words that we think may have died early. We found them in two places: a book called “The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk, and on a blog called Obsolete Word of The Day that’s been out of service since 2010. Both are fantastic— you should check them out.
Snoutfair: A person with a handsome countenance — “The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk
Pussyvan: A flurry, temper — “The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk
Wonder-wench: A sweetheart — “The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk
Lunting: Walking while smoking a pipe — John Mactaggart’s “Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia,” 1824
California widow: A married woman whose husband is away from her for any extended period -John Farmer’s “Americanisms Old and New”, 1889
Groak: To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them –
Jirble: To pour out (a liquid) with an unsteady hand: as, he jirbles out a dram —
Curglaff: The shock felt in bathing when one first plunges into the cold water — John Jamieson’s Etymological Scottish Dictionary, 1808
Spermologer: A picker-up of trivia, of current news, a gossip monger, what we would today call a columnist — “The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk
Tyromancy: Divining by the coagulation of cheese — “The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk
Beef-witted: Having an inactive brain, thought to be from eating too much beef. — John Phin’s “Shakespeare Cyclopaedia and Glossary”, 1902
Queerplungers: Cheats who throw themselves into the water in order that they may be taken up by their accomplices, who carry them to one of the houses appointed by the Humane Society for the recovery of drowned persons, where they are rewarded by the society with a guinea each, and the supposed drowned person, pretending he was driven to that extremity by great necessity, is also frequently sent away with a contribution in his pocket. — “The Word Museum: The Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten” by Jeffrey Kacirk
Englishable: That which may be rendered into English — John Ogilvie’s “Comprehensive English Dictionary”, 1865
Resistentialism: The seemingly spiteful behavior shown by inanimate objects —
Bookwright: A writer of books; an author; a term of slight contempt — Daniel Lyons’s “Dictionary of the English Language”, 1897
Soda-squirt: One who works at a soda fountain in New Mexico — Elsie Warnock’s “Dialect Speech in California and New Mexico”, 1919
With squirrel: Pregnant — Vance Randolph’s “Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech”, 1953
Zafty: A person very easily imposed upon — Maj. B. Lowsley’s “A Glossary of Berkshire Words and Phrases”, 1888

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Our Brave New World

"But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” -Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Nice find JB.

Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.
-Jonathan Franzen
A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.

I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.

Do I need to point out that — absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old BlackBerry felt sad about the waning of my love for it — our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway.
Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word “sexy” is used to describe late-model gadgets; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling them to action with voice commands, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger — would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic.
Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.
A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.
And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.
And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.
BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.
Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.
And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.
Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.
And who knows what might happen to you then?
Jonathan Franzen is the author, most recently, of “Freedom.” This essay is adapted from a commencement speech he delivered on May 21 at Kenyon College.

Friday, March 08, 2013


The most worthless coin in the world is the Uzbek tiyin! The irony is that it is worth
 even less than they say, given that they are exchanging it at the gov rate, not blackmarket rate.

Chavez, Castro, the putsch, the push

There is a wonderful irony between Chavez and Castro when it comes to the role of U.S. intervention into their own actions.

Years ago, a young Fidel was in Washington to reassure America that his regime was taking a third way.  And he kinda was, until the Bay of Pigs invasion.  With his regime threatened, he went squarely into the Soviet camp, and the rest is history ("I got hit with a guided muscle").

More recently, Chavez was elected also promising a third way.  He was not a firebrand, but used rhetoric more like Tony Blair.  There are pics of him shaking hands with one President Clinton.  Then there was the 2002 coup against Chavez, and the Bushies recognized the plotters way too quick.  Chavez was never the same.  After that, he became the Leftist firebrand that he was forever known for.

I won't miss Chavez, I thought he was a putz at best.  I think he royally screwed Venezuela, perhaps for years to come. I called him a hijo de puta when he was 20ft from me on live Argentine tv.  His security was not pleased.

But I also recognize the role our meddling has played in shaping the adversaries we face.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Worm knows

"There is nobody at the CIA who can tell you more personally about Kim Jong Un than Dennis Rodman," remarked ABC News military analyst Col. Steve Ganyard, "and that in itself is scary."

Guns kill more people. So why does terrorism get all the attention?

Something I have long wondered, but never been able to express so eloquently:

Guns kill more people. So why does terrorism get all the attention? 
by Tom Diaz

The next time you play airport security theater — remove shoes, display laptop, toss water bottle — think of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Think of the moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., the citizens in Tucson peaceably assembled to meet with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago girl killed by gunfire days after coming to Washington with her high school band for President Obama’s second inauguration.

“Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique,” Obama said in Chicago on Feb. 15. “It’s not unique to Chicago. It’s not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us.”
These victims were casualties of domestic battles. Most died from wounds inflicted by military-style weapons designed to kill large numbers quickly.

Then ponder this: Americans suffer assaults on their privacy — they are groped in public and wiretapped en masse — and surrender their constitutional protections against unwarranted searches in the name of the war on terror, yet they cannot muster the will to protect children from mass murder with military-style weapons. We have spent more than $1 trillion on homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, yet have withheld annual funding of less than $3 million for research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on gun violence.

Why are the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments subject to erosion in the name of homeland security, but the Second Amendment is beyond compromise in the name of saving innocent lives?

The risks of terrorism are not so much greater than the risks of gun violence that a disproportionate response is justified. Between 1969 and 2009, according to a 2011 Heritage Foundation study, 5,586 people were killed in terrorist attacks against the United States or its interests abroad. By comparison, about 30,000 people were killed by guns in the United States every year between 1986 and 2010. This means that about five times as many Americans are killed every year by guns than have been killed in terrorist attacks since Richard Nixon took office.

The Transportation Security Administration has an annual budget of about $8 billion and has spent about $60 billion on aviation security since 2001. The TSA employs about 62,000 people, of whom 47,000 are airport screeners.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — the principal federal agency charged with regulating the gun industry— has a budget of about $1.2 billion. It employs roughly 5,000 workers, about half of whom are special agents charged with carrying out criminal investigations.

These huge allocations turn the reality of risk on its head. In the nine years after 2001, 340 people were killed and 267 injured in attacks on civil aviation worldwide.

Our perception of the relative dangers of terrorism and gun violence is distorted. We don’t know it, and our leaders don’t bother to tell us. Indeed, they conspire with the gun industry to hide it.

Beyond immediate danger, humans are poor judges of risk — witness texting drivers and iPod-entranced jaywalkers. Yet, with education, risk perception can change. We’ve altered risk perceptions about smoking, unprotected sex, seat-belt use and the need for police to wear body armor. These changes were driven by fact-based research and clear advice on how to lower risk.

Americans needed no further evidence of the risk of terrorism than the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. President George W. Bush standing on the twin towers’ rubble with a bullhorn sparked a national consensus about what to do. That consensus has been sustained by a vast, federally funded security industry that extends even into academia. The Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security lists 375 colleges and universities that offer homeland security programs. Platoons of security experts from the industry and its academic branch continually warn us in seminars and congressional hearings of the need to keep the money flowing.

The greater risk of gun violence is masked. The media report lavishly on mass shootings but often fail to cover the much higher number of Americans killed and injured in gun violence daily. In Chicago last month, Obama said that 443 people were killed by guns in that city in 2012, and 65 of them were children — “a Newtown every four months.” Every day, about 80 Americans die from gunshots and about twice as many suffer nonfatal injuries, often lifelong debilitations. I researched a week of U.S. news stories about gun violence in August 2011 and then compared them with CDC averages; I found that about eight times more gun deaths and 60 times more gun injuries occurred than were reported.

The gun industry and the National Rifle Association have shut down federal information sources. Until Obama changed the policy by executive order in January, the CDC was forbidden to research gun violence under a law passed in 1996. In 2003, the ATF was forbidden to release summary data from millions of crime-gun traces. We value ignorance over knowledge of a threat that takes more lives than terrorism many times over. Congress and two presidents — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — have presided over this flight from fact. It has been politically safer to pander to the visceral fear of terrorism than to stand up to the gun industry.

Hopefully, this is changing. While Congress muddles along its familiar, shameful path of rhetoric and preemptive surrender — Republican legislators recently voiced their opposition to keeping records of gun sales — Obama has clearly articulated the fundamental causes of U.S. gun violence. By taking the issue to the American people, he may get the support of the majority who want real change. A Johns Hopkins poll released in January showed that 89 percent of Americans wanted to require background checks for all firearms sales; more than 80 percent wanted to prevent “high-risk individuals,” including people who have violated restraining orders, from owning guns; 69 percent wanted to ban sales of semiautomatic assault weapons; and 68 percent wanted to prohibit the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines.

If we are to protect the homeland, we must also protect our children and all innocent citizens from the epidemic of violence inflicted by military-style guns.

Tom Diaz is a former senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center and the author of “The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It.”

Food for thought

A few good tidbits from Abba:

-In praise of the humble lentil

-Herring and the preservation of Jewish soulfood.

-Fear Itself; or how FDR was captive to the racist South to get the New Deal moving.

Pickle vodka, Corned Beef Special; Globetrotter Diplomacy

I finally had a night out last nigh t, and went out with Alan- the Kurdish violinist AV scholarship student.  We went down to the Central West End, and stopped at a vodka bar called Sub Zero.  They had some amazing vodka-infused concoctions.  Jars of fruits in colored liquids, ranging from blue to red.

Alan had a peach-mango-infused vodka, while I had a pickle-infused vodka.  The giant half dills sat floating in the green-tinted vodka.  The pickle vodka was delicious.  It was like drinking juice that was cut with a light hint of vodka.  I was designated driver, and quickly decided this place was dangerous.  Alan tried one more vodka, which was also delicious.  It was a pineapple-infused vodka with big rings sitting in the yellow still.  His drink tasted tasted like a pineapple cupcake, with hints of vanilla.  Yum.  As we were sitting there, we got chatting with two older women about the vodka, and Alan learned an important new word of the day: "cougar."

We headed out to another place called Lester's, a sports bar decked out in Cardinal garb and Stan Musial regalia.  Alan got to try the deli classic Corned Beef Special.  Corned beef with coleslaw and russian dressing on rye.  I was a bit shocked that the place put the coleslaw and russian dressing on the side- but with a name like Lester's, it's not quite a Jewish deli.  I only cringed a little when he started to put ketchup on the sandwich.

We watched the Harlem Globetrotters, which he loved.  The crazy antics were perfectly translatable.  And as everything relates to public diplomacy, it got me wondering about whether the Harlem Globetrotters were ever sent abroad as basketball ambassadors.  The State Dept is doing more through sports diplomacy, and a lot with sending basketball stars abroad to places like South Sudan.  Although not under State's auspices, the remarkable visit of Dennis Rodman to North Korea is a bit of bball diplo.

I got my answer while writing: apparently Rodman traveled to NK with 3 members of the Harlem Globetrotters.  Great!  This Undersec for PD would make the Harlem Globetrotters live up to their name, and send them trotting around the world as Basketball Ambassadors.  Their brand of comedic basketball is much more suited for PD purposes.  Sometimes the competitive side of real sports spill over (see under the Georgetown-China brawl), but the irreverent Harlem Globetrotter antics fits squarely within the Barnum-Bernays School of PD.  To make people love you, you have to make them laugh; hearts and minds are won through the belly (gastrodiplo) and belly laughs.

On a final note on an apropos subject, Public Diplomacy Magazine's new issue is on Sports Diplomacy.  Congrats to the staff of PD Mag for a great issue!

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Portobello Reuben & the deli challenge

In a rare respite from work this week, my operations manager Spencer and I headed out to the Cherokee neighborhood in St. Louis to grab a bite at a place called The Mud House.  He had a sandwich called a Veggie Time, which consisted of roasted red peppers, portobello mushrooms, cucumbers, pea shoots, onion marmalade and goat cheese on a soft roll.  I had a portobello reuben, which was immaculate.  Grilled portobello mushrooms, swiss cheese, caramelized onions and russian dressing on toasted marble rye.  Yum! It was savory and gooey, and incredibly delicious.  Perfect comfort food for a long day.  We split the sandwiches for a little shared flavor.

My dad sent me an interesting article on the tough times of Jewish delis, but perhaps the once-mighty deli needs to adapt.  If I could find more portobello mushroom reubens on the menu, I would frequent more often.

For dessert, we stopped into a lovely little bakery called Whisk, a sustainable bakeshop up the street.  We chatted with the lovely owner about cake balls, life in the bakery and otherwise, as I munched a scrumptious brownie.  She gave me the choice of middle piece or ends.  The middle, please.  It was the perfect consistency of chocolatey and soft without being too much of either.  I was curious about the sea salt chocolate chip bacon cookie, but not enough to break my kosher vegetarian ways.

Gastrodiplo tidbits

PD Purple Heart

I earned a PD purple heart this week.  The Clinton Curtis Band has been on tour through the Caribbean, Central America and Colombia through the American Music Abroad program.  I met the band first in Turkmenistan during US Cultural Days on my own AMA tour with Della Mae.

The Clinton Curtis Band is a great rock/blues band from New York.  Their tour was going extremely well, until Clinton's father passed away last week.  So I put on my PD travel agent hat, and got him and his girlfriend Liana (who is in the band) back to Key West the next day so he could be with his family.  Meanwhile, the rest of the band was ready to soldier on and run music classes and workshops.  Problem solved, so I thought.

But as they were in transit from El Salvador to Colombia, I received word that the US Embassy in Colombia was going to have to cancel all concerts and programs because they didn't feel they could run the eponymous band tour without the band leader.  In a rush to keep things holding together, I started reaching out to other AMA acts to see if we could get a replacement singer down asap to keep the tour rolling.

First I reached out to Celia Woodsmith of Della Mae, but she couldn't because the Dellas were on a West Coast tour.  Then I reached out to Eric Robertson of The Boston Boys, who had toured with AMA through the Middle East.  Eric wanted to help, so he was willing to drop everything and cancel a few gigs to assist.

I spent the day working with the travel agent to get him down that night to Colombia, and back in time to his gigs he couldn't beg off.  Got him booked and on a flight down that night.  After an exhausting hustle to get him down, and thinking I got the tour fully saved, I received notice that post still had to cancel two cities on the tour because partners were backing out.  So I had to change even more flights, and earned my stripes as a PD travel agent.

But on the upside, bringing Eric down managed to salvage the program in Bogota.  The band was able to give a concert and workshops and Eric's style fit perfectly with the band; audiences were amazed to find out that they had never played together.  Post was very pleased that we were able to make the Bogota portion a success.

In the end, it felt good to get Clinton to be home with his family in such a sad time, and get Eric down to save a portion of the tour.  Good public diplomacy is found in flexibility and creativity in the face of obstacles.